To hack or not to hack? That is the question...

3rd January 2018
Anna Flockett

Why attend a Hackathon? These events must be only for young hackers or geeks. Dimitrios Spiliopoulos is a 30 year old businessman, who works in the area of Internet of Things, so assumed he must be irrelevant for this kind of competition. ‘Why waste my well-deserved weekend?’ Were his original thoughts, but he made the decision to try it at least once, and found he was wrong like a lot of people who may have thought the same. In this blog Spiliopoulos explains more about Hackathon’s and how they can be for everyone.

So, what is a Hackathon? Based on Wikipedia: “A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers, and others, often including subject-matter-experts, collaborate intensively on software projects.’’ Reading this description, you feel that indeed it is only for technical experts (like hackers, as business people say).

But the reality is that nowadays Hackathons are sprint-like events, usually for a full weekend, full of energy in which business and technical people meet together to build teams with complementary skills and develop in less than 48 hours feasible solutions (Minimum Viable Products - MVP) for specific industries (depending on the theme of the hackathon).

People from different backgrounds, bankers, marketers, consultants, developers, data scientists, UX, entrepreneurs, and different age groups, from young kids to retired professionals, meet in a common place and try to think of business ideas and in a limited time to deliver them properly in front of a judging panel. Despite the different age, skills and backgrounds, the motivation of the participants is usually the same: to learn new concepts and meet interesting people while they have fun.

In general, Spiliopoulos said he would suggest to anyone to participate until the end in a hackathon at least once and challenge himself/herself to take the most out of it from this experience.

Some good reasons to spend a full weekend for this activity:

Especially for the business people, it is worthy because you can:

  •  Learn how to collaborate and communicate with people with technical background who usually have different way of communication, but also they use a vocabulary that you do not know well (coding terms and challenges).
  •  Learn about new technologies, their limitations and capabilities, how to collect and use the data.
  • Appreciate your business knowledge and experience while working with geeks. Your support for market analysis, problem validation, business model and go to market strategy is critical for the success of the team.
  • Meet potential partners who can help you develop your business idea in the real world and make it ready for the market. We all know how critical is to have in the founding team developers or engineers who can create the first MVP.
  • Get inspired from the tech guys who can learn new skills and implement them in just a couple of hours. Of course, inspiration can be found from any other participant. For example, Spiliopoulos said he was really inspired from the father who came to code together with his two young sons in order to motivate them about coding and have fun with his kids, and other people with similar interests.

For the technical people, on the other hand, it is worthy to attend a hackathon not only because you can have fun by coding and learn new coding languages and skills, but also because you can:

  • Understand that the technology used is not the most important thing in a business idea and especially when you communicate it in your pitch. Identifying a real and big problem and developing a simple and compelling solution is the key.
  • Learn to communicate with other colleagues who do not understand the terminology that you use, the challenges you face and, in general, they have no idea about coding or data.
  • Learn quickly about the key steps that startups need to pass when they develop the product/service and pitch to investors.
  • Learn about market analysis, marketing, go to market strategies and the importance of knowing in advance how you are going to make money from your idea.

Needless to say, having fun (even under pressure), meeting new people who challenge themselves and networking with potential employers, colleagues or new friends are also enough reasons to participate.

And who knows, together with your team you may have a good business idea that you are willing to take out in the market (even if you didn’t win the hackathon) and this may change your life.

Spiliopoulos said: “I participated in two hackathons (AI Angel Hack– GovTech Alliance and StartupWeekend for Smart Cities and Home) and thanks to the great team members and good mentors both times we won the first prize. Not sure yet though, if we will continue with the ideas as side projects and become entrepreneurs, but I can confirm that I learnt many new things that help me in my every day job and I met people who inspired me in several ways.”

Spiliopoulos’ tips for success:

  1. Find and focus on a big and real-world problem relevant to the theme of the hackathon (take feedback from others and do your own research).
  2. The solution needs to be simple and easy to be understood even from your grandparents.
  3. At the pitch do not spend much time and slides on the technology that you used, but of course be sure that it is feasible to implement the idea.
  4. Clear business model and realistic go to market strategy (the judges usually are experienced senior professionals).

Piece written originally by Dimitrios Spiliopoulos here.

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